Questioning Columbus

What New York City students learned about Christopher Columbus when their own classroom was ‘discovered’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students listen as their teacher gives a small group lesson at Indianapolis Public School's Center For Inquiry at School 27.

Mariana Souto-Manning flashed an image of a square with a diagonal line through the middle. The associate professor at Columbia’s Teachers College asked a crowd of educators what they saw.

A box with two triangles? A couple of sandwich wedges? How about tally marks?

Souto-Manning explained this is how she learned to count by fives in Brazil: Instead of the hash-mark method used in American schools, students draw the four lines of a square. A slash through the middle signals a group of five.

Souto-Manning was making a point about the cultural nature of knowledge, and the need to be aware of that in diverse classrooms.

“We need to do away with the idea of a single story, of a curriculum, of a master narrative — as if that was the only story,” she said.

Across New York City, parents are calling for more racially and economically integrated schools. But for many, enrollment policies that mix students of different backgrounds is a just small piece of what’s needed to make schools more inclusive.

In order to truly integrate, advocates say educators need to take a close look at the lessons they teach. In other words, schools need to be adept in culturally relevant teaching — making sure students of all identities are reflected in what is taught and how it’s taught.

“Rethink who is the curriculum, who is the teaching, centered on?” Souto-Manning said.

Teachers College recently hosted educators from around the world to explore diversity in a way that goes beyond simple demographics. Among them were three New York City teachers who explained how they weave culturally relevant lessons into their practice.

Here is a glimpse into each of their classrooms.

Who discovered this classroom?

With Columbus Day nearing, Jessica Martell wanted her second-graders to take a critical look at the narrative that European explorers discovered America. Working with fourth-grade teacher Abigail Salas, she hatched a plan: The fourth-graders would swoop into the second grade classroom while the younger students were out for gym, taking over the new territory they had “discovered.”

A video clip shows that when the younger students returned to their classroom, they found the fourth-graders settled on a large rug. The second-graders stood frozen at the sight. One little boy elbowed his way to the front of the bottleneck, his chin dropping once he laid eyes on the scene. Someone declared she felt like crying.

“This is our room. It was empty,” Salas informed them. “We discovered this room.”

Students quickly made the connection to Columbus’ interactions with native people. They wondered how someone could be credited with finding a place that others already called home.

Among the questions students asked: “Why couldn’t the two groups just share?” and “How did Columbus communicate with the indigenous people? Did they speak the same language? If not, we know the story is untrue.”

For Salas, such critical questioning signals the lesson was a success.

“I wanted to get away from that story of the people in power,” said Salas, who works at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side. “Story acting is a culturally relevant teaching tool because it helps students develop empathy and understand multiple perspectives.”

Going beyond birthday cake celebrations

Birthdays are a big deal for elementary school students — especially in Martell’s second-grade class.

Martell, who teaches at Central Park East II in East Harlem, makes it a point to celebrate every child’s birthday in a particularly personal way: She invites parents into the classroom to tell the story of the day their child was born. It’s a year-long project that includes family interviews and reading Debra Frasier’s children’s book “On the day you were born.”

“Each child has a history. That history is important,” Martell said. “How do we learn that history? Not from a cumulative file that we get at the beginning of every year, nor from an assessment binder.”

The visits impart valuable lessons about different places, periods in time and all the different forms a family takes. In one instance, an adoptive mother told the class about the tribe in Africa that her daughter was born into. Another time, a boy served as translator for his grandfather who communicates in American Sign Language. And in another case, a lesbian couple assured the class they were both “real” moms.

“Through these oral history projects, students come to understand the importance of each other, and what a treat it is to learn from and with families,” Martell said.

Learning how to pronounce everyone’s name correctly

One student in Carmen Llerena’s kindergarten class often needed extra reminders to follow directions. When she spoke with the boy’s mother about his difficulties in class, the mother cut her off.

“He always says ‘Mommy, my teacher doesn’t know my name,’” the mother said.

It turned out Llerena, a teacher at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side, had been mispronouncing the student’s name. She apologized, and soon the little boy was much better behaved.

Llerena doesn’t make that mistake anymore.

“I am committed to pronouncing my students’ names in the manner in which their families do. This simple act conveys to students and their families that they are welcome in my classroom and that their identities are honored,” Llerena said.

Now, she makes an extra effort to learn how each child got his or her name. Every year, she makes a class book that tells those stories. Each student gets his or her own page, with a photo of the child and their “name story” written in their native language.

Making sure every family is included is key. Llerena starts with a letter home in backpacks, asking parents to write down their stories. But for those who don’t respond, Llerena seeks translators, conducts interviews at drop-off and pickup, and even involves older siblings if needed.

“Instead of blaming family members for not sending information back, we re-sent the notices and gave them ways to know to look out for them,” she said. “It made space for family literacies to be a central part of our curriculum and teaching.”

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

pushing integration

New York City must move faster to combat school segregation, lawmakers say

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students called for school integration at a rally at City Hall in May 2017.

Ahead of a city council hearing Thursday where lawmakers are set to grill the de Blasio administration on its plan to boost school diversity, a trio of council members is calling for more aggressive efforts to tackle the city’s stark school segregation.

In the essay below, the councilmen — Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, Brad Lander of Brooklyn, and Daniel Dromm of Queens — note some progress the city has made in the three years since the council’s last major hearing on the issue, but call the city’s approach “still-hesitant.” Read the full essay below.

Integrating NYC’s Public Schools, Step by Insistent Step

Four years ago, the UCLA Civil Rights Project issued a chilling report, showing that New York had the most segregated schools in the country. Anyone willing to look already knew our schools were deeply segregated, of course. But we had somehow stopped paying attention. We treated segregation like it was a problem of the South, or of the distant past.

After the report — and prodded also by grassroots organizing, powerful journalism, and the symbolism of the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education — we decided to hold a City Council hearing. That hearing stretched on for ten hours. Our conclusion: Separate, still, is not equal. And also: segregated schools cannot teach inclusive, multiracial democracy.

Coming out of that hearing, the Council passed NYC’s School Diversity Accountability Act in the spring of 2015. The Act called on the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to develop a plan to integrate our schools, and required the DOE to start submitting annual reports on school segregation (the third annual report came out earlier this fall).

Over the past four years, the City has taken some first steps. Forty-two schools (out of 1700) have joined the “Diversity in Admissions” program. A few middle-school districts shifted to “blind rankings,” so the schools could not so simply pick their students based on who they were. In two high profile cases, in Brooklyn Heights/DUMBO, and on the Upper West Side, the DOE changed elementary school district boundaries with an eye to enhancing diversity.    

Even these first steps the city would not have emerged without insistent activism from students, parents, educators, and advocates across the city. And those groups have kept pushing, because there is a deep mismatch between the moral clarity of the issue — our school system rations opportunity based on race, class, and neighborhood — and the slow approach to do something about it.

This past spring (two years after the School Diversity Accountability Act), the DOE released their plan, “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools. The title gives away the still-hesitant approach. The report does not even use the words “segregation” or “integration,” preferring the anodyne “diversity.” But at least, for the first time, it set concrete numeric targets for reducing the number of students in segregated schools (and increasing the number of integrated ones).

Finally, this fall, we got something a little bigger, when the DOE released their plan for District 1’s elementary schools, a “controlled choice” model that aims to achieve integration across a district. And a conversation is underway about District 15’s middle-schools. These are still small parts of the system — but at least we are beginning to see systemic approaches.

There’s a lot more we must do. At the high-school level, we could make real progress quickly, since students all across the city are assigned in one process. With political will, the city’s specialized and screened schools could be pushed to integrate. For elementary schools, we need new models, since neighborhood-based school zoning in a residentially segregated city guarantees segregated schools. One model is a “school-pairing” approach that has been successful around the country. Another option is to be much deliberate in the neighborhood-wide housing rezonings about education.  

We must also make sure that schools aren’t just integrated by admissions algorithm — but actually do the hard work of culturally-competent education (with diverse teaching staffs), of surfacing implicit bias, of confronting disparities in school discipline. It is no easy task to make sure our schools are genuinely welcoming and affirming places for kids not only of every race, but also gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, immigration status, and national origin — but it remains an essential one.  

We’ve made some policy changes over the past four years, but perhaps the best thing that has changed is the emergence of advocacy movement. We’ve been deeply inspired by the growth of IntegrateNYC, the student wing of the school integration movement. Educators, activists, students, and parents from around the city meet together on a regular basis through the NYC Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation. These groups are doing the hard work of building integrated schools. And they are pointing out the gaping chasm between our values of equality and inclusion — and our practice of segregation.

So tomorrow, the City Council is holding another hearing, to listen again to those insistent voices. We’ll hear from the DOE about their plan, and push for far more comprehensive change. We’ll hear from students, parents, and teachers about the stark segregation they face in their schools. We’ll hear about some of the bright spots, too, since the power of genuinely integrated schools is truly transformative, and prepares kids for the city and the world they will inherit.

Most important, we will be called, again, to the “fierce urgency of now,” Dr. King’s demand that we look squarely at the injustice and segregation that characterizes our systems — and take real responsibility for changing them.   

Daniel Dromm chairs the New York City Council’s Education Committee. Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres are co-sponsors of the Council’s 2015 School Diversity Accountability Act.